Tag Archives: Reggie program

This story begins in Acapulco, but it doesn’t end in Yellowknife

The powerful earthquake that shook Acapulco and Mexico City a week ago made me worry about the damage that it might inflict on those two cities.  At the same time, it revived memories of the many trips I’ve made to Mexico during the past five decades.

My first trip, in February 1970, stands out from all the rest for a bunch of reasons.  It was, notably, my first encounter with the beautiful country of Mexico.

It also represented a tremendous leap from bitter-cold Chicago to a sunny and flower-filled part of the world I couldn’t wait to visit…as well as a total departure from months of hard work at my job.

Until the day I left Chicago for Acapulco–Saturday, February 21–I’d been largely preoccupied with my work as co-counsel in a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the restrictive Illinois abortion law.  We filed our lawsuit on Friday the 20th, and I took off for Mexico feeling a great sense of relief as well as anticipation.

Some background:  My first job after finishing law school was law clerk for a U.S. district court judge, Julius J. Hoffman.  [I’ve described my two-year clerkship in a series of blog posts beginning in November 2020.  Please see the first post in the series at https://susanjustwrites.com/2020/11/13/hangin-with-judge-hoffman/%5D  After leaving Hoffman, I assumed a new role that validated why I’d gone to law school in the first place:  a Reggie Fellowship, assigned to work at my chosen office, the Appellate and Test Case Division of the Legal Aid Bureau of Chicago.  [I’ve discussed the Reggie program earlier.  Please see https://susanjustwrites.com/2015/08/07/the-summer-of-69/%5D

As a Reggie, my goal was to achieve law reform for the poor, and I began to focus on my role as a lawyer working on behalf of poor women and men in Chicago. 

So, after a month or two as a Reggie, I conceived the idea of challenging the Illinois abortion law, which clearly had its most profound effect on poor and minority women.  My supervisor approved of my working on this issue, and I was soon allied with another woman lawyer (at the ACLU in Chicago), who became my co-counsel and lifelong friend.  [I’m currently engaged in a writing project focused on this lawsuit.]

After months of hard work, we filed our lawsuit with the U.S. district court in Chicago on February 20, 1970, and I left the next day for my eagerly awaited respite from work, my trip to Acapulco and Mexico City.

In lieu of traveling with a close friend or relative, I set off on my own, but I’d arranged to spend part of my time with another single woman who was also traveling on her own.  I didn’t know her very well, but she seemed sympatica and was knowledgeable about traveling in Mexico.  I’ll call her Sandy.

My first stop was Acapulco and a bargain-priced hotel located near some luxurious hotels.  Sandy, who’d chosen this hotel, arrived shortly after I did and assured me that we could safely melt into the crowd sunning themselves around a pool at one of the other hotels.  (Our place had only a small, mostly unused pool.)  So we probably violated all sorts of rules when we made our way to a crowded luxury-hotel pool, filled with the cool young people of that era, and lounged there, undisturbed, delighted to have escaped the frigid Chicago winter.

I immediately fell in love with Mexico.  Acapulco turned out to be a beautiful spot, exciting and still relatively unspoiled by American tourists.

After soaking up the sun and the nighttime scene in Acapulco for a few days, Sandy and I moved on to a large middle-priced hotel in a great location in Mexico City.  Sandy had taken up with a young man she’d met in Acapulco, and although I occasionally paired up with another young man, making up a foursome, once Sandy and I were in Mexico City I decided to go off on my own most of the time.  So I proceeded to roam parts of the city I wanted to explore, feeling quite safe wherever I went.  I impulsively purchased a ticket for the Ballet Folklorico de Mexico and ecstatically viewed a stunning dance performance filled with music and dances reflecting many regions of Mexico, some incorporating the traditions of its indigenous peoples.  And I made a memorable visit to the National Museum of Anthropology.

Before leaving Mexico, I wanted to see some of the other exciting locations described in my guidebook, and I signed up for a small private tour whose guide would pick me up at my hotel one morning and drop me off there at the end of the day.

So early one morning, I headed to the hotel lobby.  Soon a large black car arrived, driven by a pleasant young man who spoke excellent English, and I climbed inside, joining a few other tourists who were taking the same tour. 

The driver took us first to Teotihuacan, about an hour north of Mexico City, where we saw its astonishing pyramids.  I energetically climbed the Pyramid of the Sun, feeling immersed in pre-Columbian Mexico.  (Teotihuacan dates back as long as 1000 years before the arrival of the Aztecs, and the pyramid I climbed may have been built in the 4th century.)  Seeing the view from the top was exhilarating!

We proceeded to make two other stops:  the charming town of Cuernavaca and the town of Taxco, for centuries a center of silver production.  The people who lived in Taxco mined silver long before the Spanish arrived, using it for Aztec ceremonies as well as jewelry. 

I climbed the steps of Taxco’s 18th-century church, the Church of Santa Prisca, and devoured a tostada, purchased at a nearby restaurant, feasting on the tostada along with the gorgeous view from the top of those steps.  The memory of that indescribably delicious tostada, and the view, has never left me.  After choosing a couple of silver pins at a small jewelry shop (I still cherish one in the shape of the Aztec calendar stone), I reluctantly climbed back into the black car for our return trip to Mexico City, knowing that this ride meant the end of my glorious trip.

En route, I discovered that I was seated with a friendly middle-aged couple who announced that they hailed from Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, Canada.  Yes, Yellowknife.  I’d honestly never heard of it before.  I later learned that it was the capital of the Northwest Territories, located on the north shore of the Great Slave Lake.  And it’s famed for its frigid weather.  The average winter temperature is about 30 degrees below zero, and it’s rarely above 40-below.  More than half of each year, deep snow covers the ground.

When this couple learned that I was single, they immediately began to promote Yellowknife, even though I’m sure that they themselves had happily escaped its astonishingly frigid temperatures.

Both husband and wife, sharing a mindset typical of 1970, jumped to the conclusion that I wanted nothing more out of life than to find a husband.  “Come to Yellowknife,” they implored, clearly eager to add to their ranks.  “You’ll find a husband as soon as you arrive.”  (Yellowknife apparently had an overabundance of marriageable men.)

I admit that I had trouble keeping a straight face.  But I immediately assured them that I wasn’t looking for a husband.  I had a fulfilling career and didn’t intend to move anywhere in search of a partner.  I hope I avoided being rude, never adding that, even if I did decide to move, it certainly wouldn’t be to a place like Yellowknife. 

If anything, I thought to myself, I’d move to an exciting new city and definitely somewhere warmer, not colder, than Chicago.

As it turned out, my trip to Mexico—a country loaded with brilliant sunshine and unlimited quantities of breathtakingly colorful flowers—actually did make me think about moving somewhere warmer.  When I returned to Chicago, I began to focus on a possible move, most likely to California.  (My earlier plan to move to DC had ended with the election of Richard Nixon in 1968.)   During my Reggie training, I’d met the director of a legal services program, located at UCLA law school, who’d expressed interest in hiring me to work for him at the end of my Reggie year in Chicago. 

What exactly propelled me to move? 

I’d been growing increasingly dissatisfied with my life in Chicago for a number of reasons. Aside from my job, which I found very meaningful, much too much about the city no longer charmed me. For one thing, I hated the long cold gray winters. The political scene, dominated by a benevolent dictator, depressed me. Repeated visits to the Art Institute no longer left me giddy. And I found the social scene sadly lacking. It wasn’t as though I hadn’t any male companionship. I’d been dating a number of young men. But none of them had struck a spark. So, in the absence of any compelling reason to stay in the city, I began considering my options.

Then there was a blizzard in Chicago on April 1st.  Using a popular term of the day, I told friends that it “radicalized” me and led me to think seriously about moving to California.   [Please see “A Snowy April 1st,” https://susanjustwrites.com/2018/05/%5D

I traveled in May to San Francisco and LA, both for job interviews and for a glimpse into the sort of life I’d have if I moved to one of those fabulous cities. The prospect of that life struck me as quite appealing and at least worth a try.

By June, I decided to give up the lease on my Chicago apartment, sell most of my furniture, and make plans to fly to LA in late August, where I would take that job at UCLA.

I’ve described elsewhere what happened once I landed in LA.  [Please see, e.g., “Another love story,” https://susanjustwrites.com/2021/05/24/another-love-story/ and https://susanjustwrites.com/2021/05/26/another-love-story-2/%5D

But here’s my belated response to that couple from Yellowknife:  I’m sorry I disappointed you by not adding to your frostbitten population.  I think you probably meant well, but your assumption that I would even consider moving to your hometown–to find a husband–was actually offensive.  

When we met, I was in no way desperately searching for a husband.  Thankfully, I never was.  I decided a few months later to leave Chicago for LA, not knowing how my life there would turn out.  But I never contemplated for even one brief moment moving somewhere like Yellowknife.

Instead, I headed elsewhere, aiming to find—and finding–a glorious future filled with warmth and many, many sunny days ahead.

RBG in ’72

Countless words have been, and will continue to be, written about the incomparable U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who served on the high court for 27 years.

I will leave discussions of her tenure on the Court to others.

What I will do here is recount the one and only time I encountered her in person, at a law school conference, at a pivotal point in her career.  If you’re interested in learning about that encounter, please read on.

In September of 1972, I was a full-time faculty member at the University of Michigan (UM) Law School.  Notably, I was the only full-time faculty member who was a woman.

The law school had a desirable setting on the UM campus, whose multitude of elm trees were unfortunately denuded of leaves, thanks to Dutch elm disease. The law school buildings made up the stunning Law Quadrangle, featuring beautiful old buildings constructed in the English Gothic style.

My role on the faculty was to help first-year law students learn the basics of legal education:  how to analyze court rulings (the kind they would read in the books assigned to them in courses like Torts and Contracts); how to do their own research into case law; and how to write a readable legal document, like an appellate brief aimed at persuading an appellate court to decide in their favor.

I was one of four young lawyers hired to fill this role.  The three men and I each taught one-fourth of the first-year class.  As I recall, we got to choose our offices in the law school library, and I immediately chose a plum.  It was an enormous wood-paneled room with charming hand-blown stained glass windows.  One entered it via a stairway leading upstairs from the library’s impressive reading room.  I treasured my office and happily welcomed meeting with students there.  And I wonder, in light of renovations at the law school, whether that glorious office still exists.

At some point early that fall, I learned that a conference on “women and the law” would be held at the New York University School of Law in October.  This was a bold new area of law that most law schools didn’t consider worth their attention.  NYU was clearly an exception. 

The idea of the conference immediately grabbed my attention because I had a longstanding interest in its stated focus.  One reason why I had myself attended law school a few years before was that, beginning very early in my life, I was and remain concerned with achieving equity and justice, including equal rights for women.

This focus had led me to attend law school during the mid-’60s.  My first job was that of law clerk to a U.S. district judge in Chicago.  After finishing my clerkship, I became a practicing lawyer as a Reggie assigned to my first choice, the Appellate and Test Case Division of the Chicago Legal Aid Bureau.  [I discussed the Reggie program in a blog post, “The Summer of ’69,” published on August 7, 2015.]

And so, three years earlier, in October of 1969, I had begun working on a lawsuit that had a significant bearing on women’s rights because it would challenge the constitutionality of Illinois’s restrictive abortion law. This law had an enormous impact on the lives of women, especially poor and non-white women.

I worked with Sybille Fritzsche, a lawyer with the ACLU in Chicago, who became my close friend.  Sybille and I spent months preparing our case.  We filed our lawsuit in February 1970, argued it before a three-judge federal court in September, and won a 2-to-1 ruling in our favor in January 1971.  (The ruling in that case, Doe v. Scott, and the events leading up to it, are the focus of a book I’m currently writing.  In the meantime, you can read about our case in historian Leslie Reagan’s prize-winning book, When Abortion Was a Crime.)

Now, in the fall of 1972, I learned about the conference at NYU.  Because I was extremely interested in attending it, I decided to ask the UM law school’s dean, Theodore St. Antoine, whether the school might send me to New York to attend it.  I thought I had a pretty persuasive argument:  I was the only full-time woman on the law school faculty.  Didn’t the dean think it would be a good idea to send me to represent UM at the conference? 

How could he say “no”?  Ted thought about for a moment, then gave his approval.  So off I went, my expenses paid by the kind patrons of UM. 

My hotel, the Fifth Avenue Hotel, located near NYU’s law school, had sounded appealing on paper, but it turned out to be something of a dump.  It suited me just fine, however, because I barely spent any time there.  I was too busy attending the conference sessions and, when I could, taking a short break to reconnect with a couple of law-school classmates and briefly sample life in New York City, a city light-years removed from less-than-exhilarating Ann Arbor, Michigan.

The conference, held on October 20-21, turned out to be a symposium sponsored by AALS (the American Association of Law Schools), “The AALS Symposium on the Law School Curriculum and the Legal Rights of Women.”  It featured a number of prominent speakers, mostly law professors and practicing lawyers who had turned their attention to “the legal rights of women” in areas like tax law, property law, and criminal law.  I attended most of these sessions, and each of them was excellent.

But the only session I was really excited about was a talk by someone named Ruth Bader Ginsburg.  I was quite certain that I would relish hearing her talk, “Toward Elimination of Sex-Based Discrimination: Constitutional Aspects,” because the topic was right down my alley.

Looking back, I don’t think I knew anything about RBG at the time.  But when she was introduced (by NYU dean Robert McKay) and began to speak, I was riveted by every word she uttered.  She spelled out everything she had already done and planned to do to achieve gender-equity.

So although I was not already familiar with her, I knew immediately that she clearly was and would continue to be a brilliant leader in the field of women’s rights.  I filed her name away in my memory so I could follow whatever she would do in the coming years.  And I did just that, enthusiastically following the many astounding accomplishments she achieved after 1972.

Your image of RBG may be that of the frail, petite woman who took center stage in our culture in her 80s.  But the RBG I saw in 1972 was very different.  She was an amazingly attractive young woman of 39.  You can see photos of her at that time in The New York Times of September 18 (in Linda Greenhouse’s long review of her life and career) and in a recent issue of TIME magazine (Oct. 5-12, 2020). Although much has been made of her short stature (one I share), she was so very energetic and focused that one quickly forgot how small she was.

It turned out that she had attended Harvard Law School about a decade before I did.  Like her, I’ve been called a “trailblazer” and a “pioneer,” and I also confronted gender-bias at every turn throughout my life.  My path was only a bit less rocky than hers:  My class at HLS included the whopping number of 25 women in a class of 520, while hers had only 9.

I’ve since learned that October 1972 marked a pivotal time in RBG’s career.  She had just switched her teaching position from Rutgers Law School to Columbia Law School (a considerable upgrade).  And she had just assumed another new position:  Director of the Women’s Rights Project at the ACLU, a project she had helped to found a short time before. 

So I’m left wondering…did she know about the case Sybille (an ACLU attorney in Chicago) and I brought in February 1970, a case that put a woman’s right to reproductive choice front and center?

RBG was an ardent supporter of reproductive rights during her tenure on the Supreme Court.  She discussed her views on abortion and gender equality in a 2009 New York Times interview, where she said “[t]he basic thing is that the government has no business making that choice for a woman.”

But I know that she had also stated that she wasn’t entirely happy with the way in which Roe v. Wade gave every woman in the U.S. that choice by bringing cases like Doe v. Scott in the federal courts.  She stated that she would have preferred that the argument had been made, over time, in each state’s legislature, with the right to choose being gradually adopted in that way rather than in one overriding court ruling that included every state.

Notably, on the 40th anniversary of the court’s ruling in Roe v. Wade, she criticized the decision because it terminated “a nascent democratic movement to liberalize abortion laws” that might have built “a more durable consensus” in support of abortion rights.

She had a point.  A democratic movement to liberalize abortion laws would have been the ideal route, and might have been a less contentious route, to achieving abortion rights throughout the country. 

But I think her position was influenced by her own life story. 

It stemmed, at least in part, from the fact that in April 1970, she was living and working in New York, where the state legislature had passed a new law allowing abortion, and New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller had signed it on April 11, 1970.  New York became only the second state in the U.S. (after Hawaii) to permit abortion, and only a few other states had carved out any sort of exception to what was otherwise a nationwide ban on abortion.

RBG may have optimistically believed that other states would follow New York’s lead.  But history has proved otherwise.

If women had waited for each of the 50 states to accomplish the goal of women’s reproductive choice, I think we’d still have many states refusing to enact laws allowing choice.  In support of my view, I ask readers to consider the situation today, when some states are trying to restrict abortion so frenetically, with or without achieving a complete ban, that they’re now simply waiting for a far-right conservative Court to overturn Roe v. Wade.

Whether or not RBG was aware of what was happening in the courtrooms of Chicago in 1970, I think I could have persuaded her that Sybille and I were doing the right thing.  

By advocating that the federal district court hold that the restrictive Illinois abortion law was unconstitutional, and persuading the court to decide in our favor, we achieved our goal of saving the lives and health of countless women who would have otherwise suffered from their inability to obtain a legal and medically safe abortion.

What greater achievement on behalf of women’s rights could there have been? 

I like to think that, after hearing my argument, RBG would have approved.